Along with the Editor and most Conservative Party members, I was sceptical about the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats formed after we unaccountably failed to win the 2010 General Election. As it happens, unlike some I was not opposed to the formation of just any coalition. I would not have minded a coalition with Labour constitutionalists, fiscal conservatives, or eurosceptics. Too many Conservatives forget how much we agree with Labour on and that we have been in coalition with right-minded Labour MPs before when times were really tough (eg the 1930s and 1940s) We should not have such a knee-jerk hatred of Labour that we think we should sacrifice any principle just to keep Labour out – Labour aren't anarchists or Islamists or fascists or any of the other true threats to our way of life. I would not even have objected particularly to a coalition with the Lib Dems if that just meant the Lib Dems got some cabinet seats and we had to modify some of our education, welfare, economic or other such policies.
What I did object to, however, was forming a coalition with the Lib Dems on the basis that we would agree to implement long-lasting damaging constitutional changes that would vest the concepts and power of the Lib Dems over the longer-term and destroy the uniquely valuable British constitution which the Conservative Party exists to protect, enhance and pass on to future generations. Education, welfare, NHS reform, the economy – these are all deeply important subjects, but they do not change the way our country is governed over decades and centuries. Because their effects are passing and can be undone later, we can trade with coalition partners over such issues.
But constitutional changes are different. We should not purchase power in the short term at the expense of vesting the destruction of our beliefs over the long-term. So if the price of a coalition with the Lib Dems was to be introducing PR and an elected Lords, failing to renegotiate our position within the EU, and entrenching the idea of us submitting to a foreign court on human rights matters, the price was too high.
So if that was really the price (and I don't believe it was), I think the Lib Dems would have offered us a confidence and supply arrangement without our giving them any of those things - then it would have been better to seek a minority government and take our chances in a second General Election. After all, no incoming government with a small majority or in a minority had, for many decades, failed to secure a majority in the subsequent General Election.
But it is one thing to say we ought to have sought a minority government in 2010, and quite another to say it would be better if the Coalition broke up now. It would be quite possible, for example, to believe we should not have formed a coalition with the Lib Dems, but that we are now stuck with it and must carry it through.
I don't believe that is so, as it happens. In my view, it now seems very unlikely that the Coalition could end, at Lib Dem instigation, with an early General Election. We can really think of three routes by which the current arrangement could end:
- The Lib Dems could split, with a group of them either refusing to support the government or actively voting against it (perhaps deliberately in order to try to precipitate a General Election), whilst a rump of the ministers either stayed in place or (much less likely) defected to the Conservatives. I believe that it is quite likely that at some point in the next two years this will happen, with 10-15 Lib Dem ministers staying in place and that meaning a Conservative-"Coalition Liberal" government, perhaps with Democratic Unionists agreeing to sit on their hands (i.e. abstain) ensuring the government survives confidence motions.
- The Lib Dems could withdraw en masse and grant a Conservative minority administration confidence and supply, either by actively supporting it or abstaining. If nothing else happens first, I consider this almost certain at some point during the final year of this Parliament.
- The Conservative Party could depose David Cameron, replacing him with a leader that actively ejected the Lib Dems from coalition and sought to govern alone.
I do not believe there is any plausible scenario in which the Lib Dems maintain sufficient discipline to withdraw from coalition in a way that precipitates a materially early general election (say, one before mid-2014). They might be able to withdraw granting confidence and supply. They might be kicked out by a new Conservative leader. But any attempt by them to force a general election would lead to their splitting and Lib Dems accepting either new or continued ministerial positions in a Conservative-led administration.
Aside from anything else, I believe that a number of senior Lib Dems (and also some Labour MPs) are totally convinced of the need for urgent and sustained reduction in the deficit and would fear the economic and financial consequences of Labour returning to office before it has had a full Parliament to re-position itself and the Coalition deficit reduction plan had had a full Parliament of implementation. The claim that we must keep the Lib Dems happy so that they will continue with us until 2015, because of the damage too early a return to Labour could do to the economy, misses the point that the Lib Dems get that too.
However, one thing I think Conservatives should grasp, and grasp firmly: unless the Lib Dems split first, it is highly implausible that they will agree to another coalition with the Conservative Party if there is a hung Parliament in 2015. A key reason for that is that for the Lib Dems to maintain their identity as a separate party and as power brokers, they have to pass their favours around. If they go with the Conservatives again in 2015, they risk becoming simply an adjunct to the Conservatives, a variant brand within our portfolio. To be truly different from us, they will have to ally with Labour next time.
One consequence of that is that any thought that we must keep the Lib Dems happy on this or that issue so that they will continue with us in 2015 is hopeless. They aren't going to continue with us in 2015. Get over it. Our only chance of forming the government in 2015 is if we can get enough seats to govern without Lib Dem support, or if we can split the Lib Dems before then. Obviously there would be a chance we could get back in with them from 2020, but that's a long way away.
Obviously Cameron and his team must be honourable and stick to any formal agreements/promises they have made to the Lib Dems. But no leader can bind his party for a whole Parliament. Just as politicians are not delegates and are not either legally, constitutionally or morally forced to stick to everything in their manifestos (aside from specific points on which a General Election might have been fought – which it would be for the Queen to enforce enaction of), so a coalition agreement does not legally, constitutionally or morally force the party to stick to everything about it. Bluntly: just because Cameron ought to stick to his promises to the Lib Dems doesn't mean the Conservative Party must keep Cameron's promises. We elect leaders, and can change them. We bring forward legislative proposals and can reverse them. We form coalitions and can abandon them. That is not improper. That is what power politics is about.
In my view, the best chance of the Coalition lasting until 2015 is if the Lib Dems can be split into Coalition and non-Coalition Lib Dems. Otherwise, at some point we shall need to strike out as a minority administration, to forge our own identity – leaving ample time (say, at least nine months) to establish that identity ahead of a General Election. If Cameron can engineer a split in the Lib Dems (as I think he probably can) or can induce the Lib Dems to leave for a year or so, granting us confidence and supply (which I think they probably will), all to the good and perhaps he can still survive as leader until 2015. If he cannot or will not do that, then, candidly, if we are to have any chance of forming the government in 2015, we shall need to be led by someone else.